The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, by Garland S. Tucker III (Emerald, 336 pp., $29.95)
The 1924 presidential election was, on the face of it, a snoozer. The major-party candidates were Calvin Coolidge (Republican) and John W. Davis (Democrat). Both were conservative — sensationally so by today’s standards. As Garland Tucker notes in this enjoyable and informative book: “There were . . . very few philosophical differences between Davis and Coolidge.” Both men thought that federal power should intrude as little as possible into the life of the nation. Both favored minimal taxation, wanted the states left to conduct their own affairs where the Constitution did not forbid their doing so, saw America’s international role in terms of diplomatic sweet nothings, and believed that “to tax one person, class or section to provide revenue for another is . . . robbery” (Davis) and that “the chief business of the American people is business” (Coolidge).
(Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that 1924 is still, just barely, within living memory. There are citizens walking our streets today who were alive and sentient when the presidency was contested by two rock-ribbed conservatives. Reflect, and weep.)
Nor was there anything to choose between the two men in background or character. Both began their working lives as country lawyers (and both returned to legal practice when their political adventures were over). Both were of spotless reputation. Neither showed any outward sign of burning ambition to be president. It is reasonable to suspect an element of political jujitsu behind that kind of diffidence; but it does really seem that both Coolidge and Davis were propelled forward in their political careers not by any lust for office, but by the urgings and maneuverings of well-placed, public-spirited friends who admired their principles, abilities, and characters.
Coolidge had ascended the political ladder painstakingly, barely missing a rung, from city councilman to vice president of the United States, with no taint of impropriety, nor even any significant political error. He became president under very romantic circumstances. He was vacationing at his father’s farm when the news of Warren Harding’s death arrived in the early hours of Aug. 3, 1923. Coolidge Sr., who was a notary public, administered the presidential oath of office to his son by lamplight in the family parlor.
Davis reached the national stage somewhat earlier than Coolidge. After a term in Congress he served in the Wilson administrations, first as solicitor general, then as ambassador to Great Britain. He returned to legal work in 1921 to recoup his finances, joining a prominent Wall Street firm. Of his character, no one seems to have uttered a negative word. King George V said that Davis was “the most perfect gentleman I have ever met” — no mean compliment from a man who was, for all his much-mocked intellectual shortcomings, a severely discriminating judge of gentlemanliness, and chary of compliments.
For all this uniformity at the tops of the tickets, mighty forces were stirring below. Strong factions hostile to Coolidge-Davis conservatism were active in both parties. These factions all traveled under the banner of progressivism, but there were nontrivial differences between the earnest, paternalistic, liberal-Protestant progressivism of the Republican party and the spicier, noisier mix of fundamentalist farmers, “free silver” populists, and urban ethnics gathered under the Democratic side of that banner. Those differences kept progressives loyal to their respective parties. Garland Tucker argues that the 1924 election was a key event in the gradual detachment of Republican progressives from their party, leading to their subsequent absorption into FDR’s coalition, and thence to the familiar ideological configuration of the later 20th century: Republicans right, Democrats left.
The personification of that detachment in 1924 was Robert La Follette, the progressive Republican senator from Wisconsin. “Fighting Bob” (whose cousin Suzanne was, by the way, National Review’s first managing editor) led his state delegation into the Republicans’ Cleveland convention as a favorite-son candidate. Having lost all his floor fights and been relentlessly heckled, La Follette decamped. A month later he accepted the nomination of the revivified Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party.
America’s political system is unkind to third parties, though. As Tucker points out: “Third parties have appeared with some regularity; however, their appearance has generally signaled some major realignment between the two dominant parties, rather than the emergence of a new permanent political party.” La Follette had a particularly steep hill to climb in 1924, with the nation in a period of great security and contentment. Millions were ascending into the middle class, lifted up on waves of prosperity generated by new technologies — the automobile, the airplane, radio, the movies, plastics — and energized by conservative fiscal policy. Foreign affairs troubled no one. There was little enough chance of a major-party candidate’s unseating an incumbent president in such a time; a third party had no hope. Writes Tucker: “Neither La Follette’s radicalism nor Davis’s me-too conservatism could shake the voters’ faith in the link between prosperity and Coolidge conservatism.”
Fighting Bob gathered 17 percent of the popular vote, but won only his home state. Just a dozen years earlier, the presidency had been contested by three candidates of progressive inclination (though in different degrees) and one socialist. They had shared 98 percent of the popular vote between them. Not for nothing did later generations of liberal historians deplore the 1920s as a regrettable lapse — “dull, bourgeois, and ruthless,” said Henry Steele Commager — between the idealistic statisms of Wilson and FDR.
As the campaign opened, John W. Davis was in a position little better than La Follette’s. The Democrats’ New York convention had been exceptionally rancorous. After 103 ballots across nine days, the delegates had thrown ideology to the winds and nominated Davis by acclamation. It was a pyrrhic victory for conservative Democrats. William Jennings Bryan loyally supported the ticket, which included his brother Charles, governor of Nebraska, as vice-presidential candidate. However, other key Democratic progressives defected to La Follette. One of them, Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana, spoke for all: “When the Democratic party goes to Wall Street for a candidate, I must refuse to go with it.” The ailing Samuel Gompers, still monarch of the U.S. labor movement, endorsed La Follette, refusing an invitation to meet with Davis. The party never again put forward a conservative for the presidency.
In the tactics of campaigning, Davis faced three hindrances. First, there was not much to talk about other than some fine points of trade and tax policy. The Harding scandals were a fast-fading memory, and nobody thought Coolidge had anything to do with them anyway. The League of Nations was a dead letter for most Americans, though it remained a boutique issue among progressives.
On the two big social topics of the day, Prohibition and the resurgent Klan, Coolidge and Davis were of like mind. Both spoke respectfully of the 18th Amendment as embodying the people’s will, while simultaneously dog-whistling to the “wet” factions of their parties. Coolidge, for example, noted that the law was the law, but that “any law that inspires disrespect for other laws — the good laws — is a bad law.” The Klan was a much bigger problem for Davis than for Coolidge, there being a strong pro-Klan faction among Democrats. It is greatly to Davis’s credit that he denounced the organization in unambiguous terms — “frequently and forcefully,” writes Tucker. Coolidge signaled his own views by delivering the commencement address at all-black Howard University four days before his party convention.
Davis’s second tactical hindrance was that he lacked the common touch. He had a first-class mind, but in oratory he was too habituated to the syllogisms and sonorities of courtroom argument. Says Tucker: “The literary allusions, elegant structure, and crisp diction that he consistently employed in his speeches routinely sailed over the heads of most of his crowds.”
His third and most vexing problem was that Coolidge would not talk. He was a taciturn man at the best of times: “The Coolidges never slop over,” was his proud boast. By the time the campaign got under way he was in any case disabled by a terrible blow that had fallen in July: the death of his younger son Calvin Jr. at age 16, from blood poisoning. Coolidge never recovered psychologically from this tragedy, but it at least excused him from any active campaigning. He ventured a few speeches, most notably one on October 24 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he laid out his economic philosophy. Tucker quotes from this speech at length, saying that it “was not only classic Coolidge, it was classic conservatism.”
It was an appreciation of that classic pre-FDR conservatism that led Ronald Reagan to hang a portrait of Coolidge in the White House Cabinet Room in 1981. Reagan’s action was revolutionary at a time when the common view of the Harding-Coolidge years was still the scornful one shaped by such liberal historians as Commager, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Allan Nevins. There has since been something of a rehabilitation, marked notably by the late Bob Sobel’s 1998 biography of Coolidge and by Amity Shlaes’s 2007 The Forgotten Man.
With The High Tide of American Conservatism, Garland Tucker has made a splendid contribution to this recovery work. Here is a well-researched, well-structured narrative of classic conservative principles in action at the highest levels of politics. Along the way we get thoughtful pen-portraits of two great American gentlemen, men of the highest honor and integrity, both of whom believed, in the words of Coolidge, that “unless there abides in [the people] the spirit of industry and thrift, of sacrifice and self-denial, of courage and enterprise, and a belief in the reality of truth and justice, all the efforts of the Government will be in vain.”